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Holding the Line on Ukraine
Why the United States should refuse to cut a deal with the Kremlin that ignores Ukraine's independence and sovereignty
Yesterday, President Biden held a virtual meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia to discuss Moscow’s ongoing build-up of military forces surrounding Ukraine. The U.S. intelligence community believes that Putin may order Russian troops to invade Ukraine early next year, and robust diplomacy and intelligence sharing has convinced America’s European allies that this threat is real. Before President Biden’s call with Putin, his administration laid out a series of potential steps the United States and its allies would take if Russia does launch a full-blown invasion of Ukraine – including sanctions against Putin’s inner circle, the expulsion of Russia from the global financial system, and deployment of additional U.S. troops to frontline NATO allies like Poland and the Baltic states.
As Eugene Rumer and Andrew Weiss noted in the Wall Street Journal, Putin views Ukraine as an integral component of Russia’s sphere of influence since time immemorial. Putin’s attempts to keep Ukraine in Moscow’s geopolitical orbit have backfired twice: first in 2004 and then again in 2014. That last failure prompted Putin to deploy “little green men” to seize and then annex Crimea in February of that year, and subsequently to launch a thinly-veiled military invasion of the Donbas region in August. Fighting has ebbed and flowed on largely static frontlines over the past seven-plus years, leaving more than 13,000 dead.
It’s unclear whether these potential measures will cause Putin to reassess his position and back off from an invasion, but the Biden administration’s current attitude represents a welcome refusal to capitulate preemptively to Russian geopolitical demands. Too often, American political leaders, policymakers, and foreign policy pundits negotiate with themselves before negotiating with rivals and adversaries like Russia. Once talks are underway, American diplomats and policymakers refrain from taking actions that might upset negotiations – even as the rivals they’re negotiating with take comparable actions that would give the United States good reason to walk away from talks in protest.
In other words, it’s conflict aversion and a diplomacy-at-all-costs mindset that tends to make it more difficult to reach diplomatic solutions to foreign policy problems – not an oft-alleged over-reliance on the U.S. military. Rivals know that the United States has a greater interest in diplomacy than they do, giving them an important edge in any negotiations. That doesn’t mean diplomacy doesn’t work or can’t achieve American goals, but a diplomacy-only approach does put the United States at a distinct disadvantage before talks even begin.
The stakes are simply too high for the United States to give in to Moscow’s heavily implied threat to use military force against Ukraine. To start, it would revive ways of thinking about international relations that the world proscribed in the wake of the Second World War – particularly territorial aggrandizement and the use of armed force to coerce smaller nations. To be sure, these rules of good international conduct haven’t been observed with complete fidelity in the years and decades since 1945, but for the most part it’s become taboo for nations to go to war to conquer territory for themselves, unite a presumptive ethnic nation, or forcibly compel other countries to join their geopolitical orbit.
Cutting a deal with Putin – making a formal but ultimately unenforceable pledge not to allow Ukraine to one day join NATO, for instance – would have much the same effect. Moscow would have shown that it can achieve its revanchist geopolitical aims by threatening to invade a neighboring nation outright, all while forcing the United States and its European allies to accept Moscow’s nineteenth-century, spheres-of-influence view of the world in order to avoid military conflict. A number of “restraint” advocates in the United States would likely welcome this sort of geopolitical capitulation, but in practice it would mean a reversion to what President Franklin D. Roosevelt once called “a world dominated by the philosophy of force.”
It’d be even worse if the United States and its European allies cut a deal with Russia over and around the Ukrainian government. Coming so soon after the United States negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan behind the back of its erstwhile Afghan partners, the elected leaders of the Afghan government, such a deal would damage American diplomatic credibility enormously. One act of diplomatic duplicity is an error; two acts become a pattern. There would be no reason for, say, the Chinese government to think that it could use the threat of military force to reach a similar arrangement with the United States to snuff out Taiwan’s independence and democracy.
From a more practical standpoint, however, the problem with appeasement is that it won’t work – for reasons both general and particular to this specific case. For starters, it’s unclear that Putin will actually be appeased by any formal American and NATO commitment against Ukraine’s admittance into the trans-Atlantic alliance; his major preoccupation appears to involve preventing any Ukrainian orientation toward Europe or the United States whatsoever, whether formal or informal. Given Putin’s own instrumental view of and disregard for formal diplomatic agreements – including the 1994 memorandum between Russia, the United States, and Great Britain that guaranteed Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty – it’s unlikely that any agreement will satisfy his geopolitical demands. That’s not something the United States or its European allies should be willing to accept, both in principle and in practice.
More broadly, though, we don’t live in the nineteenth-century world that Putin and many American advocates of foreign policy “restraint” seem to think we do. Smaller nations like Ukraine do not simply accept passive roles as the geopolitical playthings of great powers like the United States and Russia, to be bargained with as Washington or Moscow see fit. These smaller nations possess their own agency (there’s a reason Baltic nations like Lithuania sought to join NATO) and American or Russian attempts to barter away their sovereignty and independence in the name of great power comity likely won’t deliver the geopolitical results many pundits and advocates believe they will.
In short, there’s no reason to cut a deal with Moscow over Ukraine’s fate – and plenty of reasons for the United States and its allies to stand firm against Russian threats. So, what does that mean in practice? Contrary to what many in the “restraint” crowd would argue, it doesn’t mean risking war between the United States and Russia. That’s a red herring that allows Moscow to threaten force wherever and whenever it wants while requiring the United States to roll over when and where it does.
Where do we go from here?
There are three main steps the United States and its European allies can take moving forward.
Set the terms for diplomacy. First and foremost, the United States should clearly and explicitly refuse to negotiate Ukraine’s fate while Moscow has a loaded gun pointed at Kyiv’s head. Nor will it cut bilateral deals with Russia that establish spheres of influence, whether implicit or explicit. In a solid start, the Biden administration has already made it clear that it does not accept the Kremlin’s diplomatic sophistry when it comes to Ukraine or European security more broadly. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently noted, Moscow has failed to meet its own myriad obligations under the admittedly flawed Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015 - including observing an enduring ceasefire, allowing the deployment of international conflict monitors, and withdrawing heavy weapons from Ukrainian territory.
Despite its shortcomings and failures of implementation, this framework still provides a path toward at least de-escalating the current crisis created by President Putin’s military build-up. The United States should work with allies like France and Germany to revive it, as National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan suggested in his post-meeting press briefing.
Take up Moscow’s offer of talks on European security - but only if they include Ukraine. As the British strategist Lawrence Freedman has proposed, the United States and its European allies should take up Russia’s offer of general talks on European security. In yesterday’s call, President Biden made clear to President Putin that the United States and its European allies were willing to “engage in a discussion that covers larger strategic issues” of concern to all parties. Should these talks proceed, the United States and its European allies should stipulate that they will not negotiate away any country’s sovereignty or force it to make concessions to Moscow it would not otherwise agree to. The United States should also insist on Ukraine’s direct participation in any and all of these discussions; if this basic demand is not met, these discussions should not go ahead. Indefinite talks on European security cost the United States, its allies, and Ukraine very little while possibly forestalling an outright Russian invasion.
Prepare for the worst. If Putin wants to pick a fight with Ukraine, it’s all on him - no one else. Should he choose to do so, however, the Biden administration should follow through on its threats to impose severe economic sanctions on Putin’s inner circle and cut Russia off from the global financial system. It should also make good on promises to deploy additional U.S. military forces to NATO’s eastern flank at the request of America’s allies. Moreover, the United States should also press Germany to live up to bilateral commitments made over the summer to take action up to and including economic sanctions against Russia if it takes “further aggressive acts against Ukraine” - including steps to halt to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, something the Biden administration says remains under active discussion with Berlin.
Ultimately, responsibility for any Russian invasion of Ukraine rests entirely and solely with President Putin – not the United States, not NATO, and not Ukraine and their supposed failure to make the necessary concessions to Moscow’s geopolitical demands. Diplomacy can still avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine – but the United States cannot make conflict aversion its primary objective. Cutting a deal with Moscow under the threat of force simply to avoid an armed conflict undermines America’s values and interests, not just in Ukraine or Europe but around the world. Above all, it would send the ominous message that the threat of force is once again a legitimate tool of global politics, to be employed to keep smaller nations in line and annex territory.
That outcome can be avoided, but only if the United States stands firm and ensures responsibility for any conflict rests where it rightly belongs: with Moscow.